Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE ALGER HISS CASE

Suit For Slander

After Hiss dared Chambers to repeat his accusation in a forum that was not privileged against a slander or libel suit, Chambers did exactly that. He appeared on Meet the Press, which at the time was a radio program, and said, "Alger Hiss was a Communist and may be one now." Hiss's attorneys promptly slapped Chambers with a $50,000 slander suit. They soon increased the amount to $75,000 after Chambers made further comments linking Hiss with the Reds.

Pretrial depositions for Hiss's slander suit were held November 4 5 and later in the month on November 16-17. Asked by a Hiss lawyer if he possessed "any correspondence, either typewritten or in handwriting, from any member of the Hiss family." Chambers replied that he had. The lawyer said, "I hope you will accept this as a notice to produce."

Bad move from the Hiss side.

The stakes were soon hiked up for everyone involved, including Chambers, because the documents the latter produced did not just support Hiss's involvement in the Communist Party but both men's acts of espionage. They were a pack of re-typed State Department documents and copies of international cables in Hiss's handwriting; both groups of papers were of a secret, classified nature. Moreover, they had an importance going beyond their content because at least one document was code and could have been used by the Soviets to break American code. Collectively, the documents would be dubbed the "Baltimore Papers" because Chambers was in Baltimore when he handed them over to Alexander Campbell, the head of the Justice Department's Criminal Division.

Chambers claimed that, when he and Alger were spying for the Soviets, Hiss would filch State Department documents and take them home for his wife to type, bringing the originals back to the State Department in the morning and passing the copies along to Chambers to give to the Soviets. He also handed Chambers his own handwritten cables.

This was a bombshell that could easily have blown up Whittaker for it meant that he had lied under oath when he testified that he had had nothing to do with spying. Chambers was revealing that he had committed acts of espionage that were tantamount to treason. The three-year statute of limitations for espionage was long past but Chambers's perjury was dangerously fresh.

Alger conceded that the handwriting in the cables was his own. However, he said he had never taken any of these documents out of the office, had not taken them home for his wife to type, and had never handed either cables or other papers over to Chambers. He offered an alternative hypothesis about how the wily Whittaker had come by them. Chambers had worked for the Railroad Retirement Board in parts of 1937 and 1938. Their office was located close to that of the State Department building. Perhaps Chambers had stolen the documents from Hiss's desk, keeping the handwritten cables and re-typing others himself, then returning the latter in the same slippery secrecy in which he had taken them.

The Hiss family did not then own a typewriter but Alger readily acknowledged that they had back in the 1930s. Priscilla was an aspiring writer and had typed part of a book manuscript on it as well as other things. He was uncertain about the brand. The typewriter operated poorly and they had sold it. He promised to deliver specimens of Priscilla's typed documents if he or his investigators found them.

Whittaker Chambers said there was a second bombshell, a group of documents that, he asserted, would clinch the case.

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